Fallout Expected After Guantanamo Detainee Acquitted

Jurors in New York City convicted Ahmed Ghailani of conspiracy to blow up government buildings in the al-Qaida attacks on two U.S. embassies in 1998, but they acquitted him on more than 280 other charges. He is the only person transferred from Guantanamo Bay for trial since the U.S. began filling the military prison in Cuba eight years ago. Host Michel Martin discusses the trial and its implications with Ben Weiser, a New York Times reporter who has been covering the trial, and Karen Greenberg, executive director of The Center for Law and Security at New York University School of Law.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear from the oldest and largest American Indian and Alaskan native organization. The group is just wrapping up a conference where they took on everything from healthy eating to tribal governance. That is later. And, also, we'll preview a new exhibition at the National Museum of African Art. Museum director Johnetta Cole is with us. All that in a little bit.

But, first, we begin with a landmark verdict in a case that could have implications for future trials of terrorism suspects in the U.S. A jury in New York yesterday acquitted Ahmed Ghailani of all but one of 285 charges related to the 1998 bombings of American embassies in the east African nations of Tanzania and Kenya. Ghailani is the first former Guantanamo Bay prisoner to be tried in civilian court.

The jury found the Tanzanian national guilty of one count of conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property with explosives. He was cleared on all other charges, including murder and conspiracy to commit murder. He faces a minimum of 20 years in prison in the attacks in which 224 people were killed, the majority of them African nationals. Defense lawyer Peter Quijano applauded the verdict.

Mr. PETER QUIJANO (Lawyer): Obviously, we believe throughout this and believe now that he never knew, that indeed he was used by his friends, the same way his friends used a parade of government witnesses. None of them knew. And that's all that happened with Ahmed. We believed that at the start of this trial, during the trial, and we still believe that wholeheartedly.

MARTIN: But Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, among others, said he was disgusted at the trial's outcome and said it was a tragic wakeup call to the Obama administration. And these proceedings have been perceived as a test case for the administration's efforts to try Guantanamo detainees in criminal courts.

We wanted to talk more about this very important case. So we've called New York Times reporter Ben Weiser, who's been covering the story. And with us from our New York studio we have Karen Greenberg. She is the executive director of New York University School of Law's Center for Law and Security. She's also been following the trial. I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. BEN WEISER (Reporter, New York Times): Thank you, Michel.

Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Executive Director, New York University Law School Center for Law and Security): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, Ben Weiser, if we could start with you. I would like to ask, how was Ahmed Ghailani identified to begin with as having something to do with the embassy bombings?

Mr. WEISER: Ghailani was identified not long after the attacks themselves, which you'll recall, occurred in August of 1998. And indeed by the end of 1998, his name was in the major indictment that had come out. But he had fled, according to the government, and had been a fugitive for almost six years until he was finally captured in Pakistan in 2004. We don't know precisely how he was identified by the American government, but they knew about him very early on.

MARTIN: Was the disagreement essentially between the prosecution and the defense the scope of Ghailani's role or how much accountability anyone connected to that episode should have?

Mr. WEISER: Well, Ghailani was charged with carrying out several very important logistical acts in the preparation for the attack in particular in Tanzania, according to the government. The government said that he purchased repeatedly large quantities of explosives, TNT, that was used to blow up the embassy. That hed bought the car - the truck that was used to carry the bomb to the embassy and that he had purchased gas tanks that were put in the back of the truck to increase the blast and indeed, to increase the body count, according to prosecutors.

The defense, however, said that this was wrong and that, you know, he knew nothing about what the goal of this conspiracy was in terms of killing Americans. And that all those transactions were routine commercial deals that are made every day in the busy marketplace in Dar es Salaam. The one key piece of sort of smoking gun evidence from the government's point of view, that he had bought the TNT that was used, although Ghailani allegedly thought that that was to be used for mining and legitimate purposes. That evidence was kept out of the trial by the judge for very interesting reasons.

But as you can see, both sides, there was largely agreement on what Ghailani had done. But there was differences of opinion on what it meant and what he knew.

MARTIN: Why do you think he was acquitted, if you don't mind my asking your opinion about this? But I mean, I'm asking you from the standpoint of somebody who watched every day and you're aware of what evidence was presented and what was kept out. Why do you think the jury decided as it did?

Mr. WEISER: It's hard to say precisely. You know, a jury is really a black box and in this case, the judge, you know, the jurors, you know, have served anonymously. They were taken away from the courthouse under high security and taken to other parts of the city. And from there they went home. So no one had any opportunity to interview them and they haven't granted any interviews.

But I think, you know, it's pretty clear that the jury concluded that whatever he did, he did not know and certainly did not intend that there, you know, that bombs go off to blow up an embassy that would kill Americans. The jury did convict him of conspiring to blow up and destroy American government property and buildings. And, you know, in some ways that may be difficult to reconcile since there were people in those buildings and they died.

But it's a bit of a mystery and there may have been total logic to the way the jury acted, or it could've been a sort of bargain and compromise. We knew that one of the jurors had written a note on Monday to the judge saying that she was alone in her view of the case and that she was being attacked by other jurors for the position she was taking.

There was widespread assumption, but no confirmation that she was a holdout to acquit, that the 11, you know, that there was a kind of a 11-to-1 vote to convict. But we really don't know that. It could've been the other way around.

MARTIN: It could've been the other way around, given that there are so many charges that the jury didn't agree, you know, on which he was acquitted.

Mr. WEISER: Exactly.

MARTIN: So, finally, Ben, before we turn to Karen Greenberg, and we do want you to stay with us, what was the reaction when the verdict was read?

Mr. WEISER: You know, it was a packed courtroom, but one group was not in the courtroom, who had been there almost every day during the trial, and that were the victims of the attacks themselves. Many had been flown in from Africa. Others in the United States had come. And their presence was really important in the case and very moving at times. But as this verdict was delivered very late in the day, almost 6 p.m., the courtroom was full, really, of just press and a lot of people associated with the government and the defense.

And I think there was, if not, jaw dropping surprise. And I'd be interested in what Karen saw. It was definitely unexpected and I think it was surprising. But it was done very straightforwardly. The jury foreman stood up and just answered not guilty, not guilty many, many times.

MARTIN: Okay. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with New York Times reporter Ben Weiser. And we will bring in Karen Greenberg of the New York University Law School Center for Law and Security. We're talking about the verdict and the terrorism trial of Ahmed Ghailani. He was acquitted on all but one count in connection with those 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

So, Karen Greenberg, you know, clearly a very intense reaction from political leaders in New York. What do you think the implications of this will be? I mean, you can see the, sort of the lines developing here. Defense lawyers are saying this is a victory for the system that these citizens calmly evaluated the evidence.

And others are saying, well, this is a disaster. It means that for whatever reason that these terrorism trials can't be tried in civilian court because the outcome won't be pleasing to many people.

Ms. GREENBERG: Right. I mean, it's kind of an irony. You have a case, he's acquitted on hundreds of counts. He's convicted in what could turn out to be a life sentence and it's considered a failure. So the political morass that still surrounds the trials of detainees from Guantanamo have not gone away with this case, which I think is something that the administration had been hoping for.

Having said that, I'm not sure whether the outcome of this case could have affected KSM when push came to shove.

MARTIN: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Ms. GREENBERG: I mean, yeah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is the highest ranking al-Qaida detainee we have in our custody, who has had many similar characteristics, his case, with that of Mr. Ghailani, including the fact that both had been subjected to a course of interrogation, enhanced course of interrogation prior to their being brought into the custody at Gitmo. And he had also been pre-indicted.

So there was a way in which the Ghailani case was seen as a test case for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Now it's a test case that people are saying is -suggests that the outcome is not predictable. I don't really think we're talking about - I think we are talking about apples and oranges here. What Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is associated with is being the mastermind of 9/11. It is widely recognized that he has been a high level al-Qaida operative.

So, how the conviction or non-conviction of Mr. Ghailani, who, at very best, seemed to be tangential to the embassy bombings - and that's at the very best, given the evidence that was presented - could really have a bearing on whether or not this highest ranking al-Qaida operative would have in our courts, it tells you something about how misled the conversation is over these trials, the content of these trials and actually who we have in our custody.

MARTIN: Well, let me just unpack this a little bit. What you're saying is that this person, you know, even if everybody agrees that this person was, I don't know if I can use this term, low-level operative, he certainly wasn't the mastermind of this event in the way that I think it's generally understood that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is. Why, then, do you feel there is the reaction that there is, given particularly that he will likely spend at least 20 years in prison and may spend the rest of his life in prison after already having been in prison for the last number of years? Is it - why do you think that is, Karen?

Ms. GREENBERG: Because the nation has been allowed to exist in what's almost an allergy to the word terrorism, particularly when it's introduced into our courts. And there are a number of people, even on both sides of the aisle in Washington who do not want due process of any sort for people alleged to be terrorists. Not even - they don't have to get to the conviction phase. And so it's a political tool. It is not about, really, the system of justice. It's not even about these particular individuals.

It is about a large group and it is about - and, really, it goes to, I think, a sense that the country, the government, neither this administration or the last one has made the country to feel secure enough, that it can use its relied upon, hundreds of years old relied upon institutions, including its legal institution, to defend us and keep us safe from terrorism.

MARTIN: Ben Weiser, 30 seconds, when is the next step in this case?

Mr. WEISER: The next step in this case, specifically, will be the sentencing of Mr. Ghailani, which will take place in January. And as you've said, he could face anywhere between 20 years and a maximum of life in prison.

MARTIN: That is New York Times reporter Ben Weiser. He has been covering the case of Ahmed Ghailani. He was with us from his offices in New York. Also with us in our New York studio, Karen Greenberg, the executive director of New York University's School of Law's Center for Law and Security. They both have been covering this trial or following this trial closely. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. GREENBERG: Thank you.

Mr. WEISER: Thanks, Michel.

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